Wake, Charlotte schools test even

Two approaches to assigning low-income students yield little difference in results

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

A newly released report on academic performance says there's not much difference in student test scores in the Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems despite their different policies on the assignment of low-income pupils.

The Queens University of Charlotte comparison of North Carolina's two largest school districts found that student test scores are only slightly higher overall in Wake than Charlotte, which the study's author attributed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg having many more low-income students. Some Charlotte students are doing as well as or better than their Wake peers.

The report will likely increase questions about whether Wake's busing of students based on family income is better than Charlotte's use of neighborhood schools.

"The biggest conclusion I drew is that you can't look at school assignment as being a silver bullet," said Cheryl Pulliam, the report's author and director of the Public Education Research Institute at the Cato School of Education at Queens University of Charlotte. "If it were, one district would have a significant advantage over the other, and it doesn't."

Efforts to reach David Holdzkom, Wake's assistant superintendent for evaluation and research, for comment were unsuccessful.

Wake County, the state's largest school district, tries to balance the percentage of low-income students to reduce the number of high-poverty schools and bolster overall academic performance. Some students are sent on bus rides of more than 20 miles.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest district in North Carolina, has shifted to a system of largely neighborhood schools, resulting in a stratified mix of affluent schools in the suburbs and high-poverty schools near downtown Charlotte.

Instead of busing students to balance the level of low-income students at each school, Charlotte pours millions of dollars into the high-poverty schools each year to boost the performance of academically disadvantaged students.

To compare the two districts, Pulliam looked at data from the state's end-of-grade math and reading tests. She pulled the raw test scores for third-graders in both districts from 2002-03, the first year that Charlotte went to neighborhood schools, tracking results as these students moved on to middle school.

The report found that reading scores for Wake's students were growing slightly faster than in Charlotte. But Charlotte's students were growing slightly faster in math.

When it comes to academically gifted students and low-income students, the report found that Charlotte's children were doing as well as if not better than their Wake peers in math.

The results surprised Wake school board member Eleanor Goettee. But she said the report doesn't take into account the staffing problems that Charlotte has from allowing schools to have very high levels of poverty.

Wake has a lower teacher turnover rate than Charlotte. Even with financial incentives, Charlotte has had difficulty recruiting and keeping veteran teachers in high-poverty schools.

"This is also a human resources issue," Goettee said.

But for Kristen Stocking, head of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, the study reinforces her group's criticism of the diversity policy. The group wants to elect school board candidates who will make it a priority for students to go to schools near where they live.

"This study confirms our belief that we can and must do better in educating Wake County's children," Stocking said. "[Wake's] socioeconomic driven policies are not the silver bullet to reassignment."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Tom Tate said he doesn't think the report provides enough data to conclude that the district's current assignment policy is either harmless or beneficial to low-income students. He said low passing rates at schools and among low-income students are reason enough to change Charlotte's assignment policy to reduce concentrations of poverty.

"I'm not so interested in comparing what CMS is doing with Wake County," he said. "It's too low, and we need to raise it."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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